Facing COVID Challenges ‘In the Eye of the Storm’

October means cooler temperatures, pumpkin patches and Halloween, but U.S. pork producers know it better as National Pork Month. To celebrate the month-long holiday, HOTH is turning over its authorship to guest hosts to offer unique perspectives and experiences in our sector. This second HOTH is penned by Minnesota Pork Producers Association President John Anderson.

 

Tell us about your hog farming operation.

Our farming partnership consists of my brother Jim, his sons Grant, Noah, and Isaac, as well as my daughter Erin. Together with our families and a dedicated team of employees, we have a diversified livestock and grain farm in central Minnesota. We are the fourth and fifth generations making a living and raising our families on this farm. We are a farrow-to-finish operation and also raise cattle, while growing corn, sugar beets, and edible beans on mostly irrigated ground.

 

What challenges have producers in your state faced this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Minnesota was in the eye of the storm when it came to impacts on pig farms due to COVID-related packing plant disruptions. Some farmers in Minnesota had to make really difficult decisions about what to do with animals that could not be sent to packing plants. Many farmers donated animals and found creative ways to use holding diets and make housing adjustments but unfortunately many pigs were euthanized in Minnesota. However, we’ve seen most farms getting closer to current on their marketing going into the fourth quarter and I’m hopeful we are on the other side.

At the height of the COVID pandemic this spring, packing plant capacity was down to nearly 50 percent. This caused serious mental and emotional distress for many farmers and had a dramatic impact on the value farmers were receiving for their animals. While plant capacity has recovered, a backup of hogs remains and the financial losses continue.

Going through all the difficulties this past year has exposed the vulnerability in the pork supply chain. As an industry, I think we worked through the huge backlog of hogs better than what was predicted in May. As producers, we are grateful for all those who worked hard to make that happen, especially those essential workers in the packing and processing plants.

 

What help can Congress provide to ensure U.S. pork producers weather the COVID-19 crisis?

Minnesota pig farmers, the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, and National Pork Producers Council have been keeping the pressure on Congress to deliver much-needed relief to farmers. We’ve been urging Congress to include:

  • Compensation for the lost value of euthanized and donated hogs, including related costs and disposal.
  • Additional direct payments to pig farmers without restrictions.
  • Additional funding for animal health surveillance and laboratories, which have appropriately assisted and shared resources with public health partners during the COVID crisis.
  • Modification of the Commodity Credit Corporation charter so a pandemic-driven national emergency qualifies for USDA funding, not just animal disease outbreaks.
  • Enhancements to the Paycheck Protection Program to ensure eligibility for farmers and ranchers who are sole proprietors.

 

Another top priority for U.S. pork producers is ensuring African swine fever and other foreign animal diseases don’t enter our country. What needs to be done to keep U.S. agriculture safe?

If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on our industry, we were able to put some of our foreign animal disease preparedness plans to the test. We found some vulnerabilities in our preparedness plans, and the industry and governmental agencies will continue to address and refine our response.

With the recent outbreak of ASF in the wild boar population in Germany, I think we have a renewed focus on how critical it is to stay vigilant in keeping it out of the country. We’ve seen how China’s swine herd has been decimated and the struggles other countries have had to eradicate ASF. All of this underlines the importance of our defense against foreign animal diseases. Agriculture inspectors are absolutely critical to keeping illegal and potentially dangerous products from introducing ASF to the United States.

This is another issue we’ve been raising with legislators. Due to fewer international flights and lower revenue from user fees passengers pay, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection needs additional funding to maintain its inspections and prevent the spread of ASF. If left unaddressed, there will be a $630 million funding shortfall by the end of September 2021.We continue to urge Congress to address this significant funding shortfall. Now is not the time to let up.

 

On a lighter note, how do you plan to celebrate National Pork Month?

Most Octobers, Shirley and I will grill pork chops and hand them out at the North Dakota State University (NDSU) Harvest Bowl football game. This is a game played every October to honor agriculture in North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota. Due to COVID, this year we will be providing the pork for a hog roast at the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity on the NDSU campus.